Sunday, November 30, 2008

Taxicab Confessions Part 3

For those of us who have not seen Parts 1 and 2 of HBO's Taxicab Confessions, Part 3 will make them want to check out what they have missed. Part 3 introduces us to a cast of characters who have fascinating stories to tell - a lot of them requiring the suspension of disbelief. The man with a bipolar girlfriend, a prostitute at peace with her profession and her connection with God, a cop whose never ending nightmares don't allow him to sleep or find love. Every rider has a story with the hint of an epic if explored deeper - a potential novel and or a film. Inside the NYC cab is the a microcosm of the entire world.

From the streets and sidewalks of the melting pot that the city is, people from all walks of life in their exuberant diversity enter the cocoon of a taxicab. Sometimes, they have things on their mind that they want to tell a perfect stranger like the cab-driver. Things that they may have held back in other circumstances in the company of friends and acquaintances.

Inside the cab, in the equivalent of a confessional. The rider and the cabbie will never meet again, there will be no trace of their encounter left once the fare has been paid. Watching Taxicab Confessions is like being a fly on the wall of the bars in Paris Hemingway frequented; the vignettes from the lives of random New Yorkers could very well create the Moveable Feast of our times.

Saturday, November 29, 2008


Love the idea of preserving one square inch of silence. The article describes the somewhat unique quest of Gordon Hempton :

He calls his project “One Square Inch of Silence.” Following leads, crisscrossing the country, he searched for one square inch where he could listen for fifteen minutes and not hear a human sound but the whisper of his pencil on wet paper.

Further on, the author says :

If he can protect the silence of even an inch, he calculates that, in effect, he will be protecting the natural soundscape of approximately one thousand square miles of surrounding land. It’s a first step toward his goal of preventing the extinction of silence.

Thanks for this beautiful essay, I know it is possible to listen to a river like it were a musical instrument, know that someone is working to preserve silence in nature.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Resilience and Resignation

J has no concept of distance yet and it is just as well. When she first saw news of the blasts in Mumbai she grew frantic to talk to her grandparents. We did what she wanted and explained how far Kolkata is from Mumbai. She kept insisting "I know its not the same place. It does not matter. It is still in India". Those were sobering thoughts coming from a seven year old who has close to no recollection of India. Indeed, distance from tragedy does not matter and that is worth remembering at times like this.

My city, my home and my people were spared this time but there are absolutely no guarantees about the next time and the next. It is like sitting atop of a rumbling volcano and counting oneself safe because it has not erupted quite yet. We are all biding our time in what appears complete helplessness. There will be regret and outrage expressed, the strength and courage of the people of Mumbai commended, strong statements of condemnation made, in a few days the story diminish in prominence and after a while there will be a false sense of well-being - at least until we are jolted out of it yet another time.

The Mumbaikars I know at work were lucky in that their families and friends were safe. It was business as usual for them unless you browsing the web while at work, for the latest news of Mumbai. Indians as a people have an ingrained sense of fatalism and it seems like tragedies like this makes it only that much stronger. It can be an admirable or frustrating trait depending on the circumstances and perspective.

One friend who has family in Mumbai said that no place in the world is safer than the other. To wake up alive in her city is no more or no less a miracle than it is to do so anywhere else in the world. That is a typically Indian response to calamity and one that I can relate with - maybe it is in our DNA. We for the most part seek refuge in our karmas and collective destiny of which we are a part instead of being the change we wish to see in the world. It is one thing to be resilient and quite another to give in to resignation. In trying to be one we must have lost our way and ended at the other.

We don't usually think in terms of doing whatever it takes to make sure this is the very last time such a thing happens in our country - that would be an American response. When tragedy does strike closer home, we would mourn our loss more viscerally but it might not substantially change our worldview. I feel crippled by how I am not able to work up a rage against what just happened. All I am capable of doing is praying that it does not happen again to anyone knowing fully well that millions of such prayers have not borne any fruit. I am the proverbial ostrich burying my head in the sand, even as a raging sand storm is burying us all under it. Suketu Mehta has in this touching NYT op-ed, an antidote perhaps.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Cleft

Every one and their grand uncle has a theory on relationships and how men and women can be at cross purposes while trying to be together. The marketplace is pullulating with the Women from Venus, Men from Mars genre books. But when Doris Lessing takes on this most weary chestnut of themes, she turns it on its head in her characteristically beguiling way. In The Cleft, she muses the eternal question about how men and women came to that fork on the road that took each to a different, quite unrelated place in the end. It is a novel. She refers to the male of the human species as:

'a younger type, a junior variation. They seem to lack the solidity of women, who seem to be endowed with a natural harmony with the ways of the world ... men in comparison are unstable, erratic. Is Nature trying something out?'

The book has not received the best reviews and the complaints are numerous - the plot is half-baked, the characters are overly simplistic among other things. The Washington Post says "It is an actively bad novel". Lessing responds to the critics in this interview.

Listen, I feel -- I'm sure I've said this before but I'll say it again -- there's a kind of problem between critics and writers. A writer falls in love with an idea and gets carried away. A critic looks at the finished product and ignores the rush of a river that went into the writing, which has nothing to do with the kind of temperate thoughts you have about it.

If you can imagine the sheer bloody pleasure of having an idea and taking it! It's one of the great pleasures in my life. My god, an idea!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


After spending close to six months with us, my mother returned home to India a couple of days ago. J burst into tears watching her disappear into security check-in. Until the last minute she had been denial of a separation we had been preparing her for months. Then grandma just vanished from sight and it was time for us to drive back to our home - the apartment that has played the role of "home" for a few years now but never quite become one.

It is not the little cottage J dreams about with a front porch and a swing in the yard. That dream I have told her will come true soon but never said when. Children don't deal well with inexactitude. Grandma was able to make the place so close to home, that J was glad to return it each day.

So she cried in fits and bursts on our way home. I tried to cheer her up the best I could. It was a few hours of driving, in horrible traffic with pouring rain and darkness for company along with a melancholy child in the back seat. She asked me "Don't you love your mother ? Don't you feel sad she's gone ?" She had clearly seen no evidence of sadness in me.

I had to stay strong so I could support J, I had to bring us home safe, tuck her for the night and prepare for the next day. I wondered if I had the right to sadness and even if I did if I had the privilege to indulge in it. It has been this way for years now - when the time comes to shed a few tears, my many responsibilities get in the way. Then the moment passes, the pain of many uncried tears lingers on somewhere in the heart, but the urgency to cry has gone.

Someday, I tell myself when the din of the daily grind dies down, when things are moving a little slower, when there is some quiet time, those tears will come. I can like J cry my heart out too and then move on in peace. Instead, the din grows louder and more urgent. In my day, the quiet spaces are all filled by the never ending stream of to-dos. The tears dry away for good. I move on too - unlike those who are able to be vulnerable, able to cry when they must and therefore have about them a certain gentleness of spirit, I am hardened.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Images of Home

There is an amazing amount of talent on Flickr but this India themed photo-stream caught my eye. Some of the images are familiar from my own Indian experience, others not as much but there is a certain warmth and strength of character about the pictures that are distinctly India. While at Flickr, I wandered across the many places I have either lived or visited in all across India - seeing what strangers had seen of these places, guided by tags they had left behind like so many breadcrumbs for me to find my way around.

The towns photographed in 2007-2008 look nothing like they did twenty or more years ago. The roads and intersections are familiar by name but have been completely redefined by the newer landmarks that now define them. It took me no more than an hour to traverse the course of a couple of decades. I realized that I would be a complete stranger at any place in India that I have not visited within the last five years or more. It is as if the life that I have lived so far, the identity that I call my own is in serious need of recalibration.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Losing Freedom

Reading this rather alarmist article by Naomi Wolfe reminds me of something my friend M said a while ago. She believes that there a reason why Americans have been given access to cheap high-calorie junk food, made addicted to cheap gas (until recently at least) , turned dependent on far too many prescription medicines and told to be very afraid of the bad guys out there who would love nothing more than to destroy their way of life.

She believes it is all part of a plot to keep the little people in line because they are easier to control and manipulate when they are are badly frightened and will reflexively seek comfort in junk food. M is one of the several older Americans I know who are deeply concerned about what the future holds for them and would be in complete agreement with Wolfe :

As Americans turn away quite leisurely, keeping tuned to internet shopping and American Idol, the foundations of democracy are being fatally corroded. Something has changed profoundly that weakens us unprecedentedly: our democratic traditions, independent judiciary and free press do their work today in a context in which we are "at war" in a "long war" - a war without end, on a battlefield described as the globe, in a context that gives the president - without US citizens realising it yet - the power over US citizens of freedom or long solitary incarceration, on his say-so alone.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Feminized Males

Found this documentary The Disappearing Male via Mefi which is about one of the most important, and least publicized, issues facing the human species: the toxic threat to the male reproductive system.

The study focuses on the physical damage being done to unborn, young and adolescent males. There are several alarming statistics on male reproductive system abnormalities, lowering standards for male fertility -somewhat akin to lowering the poverty line so more people can remain above it. The documentary makes a compelling case for how the survival of the species could be at stake if the male's ability to reproduce kept plummeting at the going rate.

While all of that is definitely concerning, it would be worth understanding the impact to the emotional well-being of males who are less "male" than their fathers and grandfathers. There has to be a huge impact to social structures, families and relationships due to this seemingly out of control feminization of males.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Equal Distance

I first read the Love Sonnets of Pablo Neruda as a teenager tentatively in love not sure how to articulate how I felt. It was a powerful and transforming force taking over my life as I as had known it till then, leaving me hopelessly unsure of myself around the object of my affections. Neruda's poetry was my favorite escape at the time - his words gave love depth and verve that went far beyond the merely powerful :

I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.

When it came time for loss, I turned to Neruda's poetry for comfort - to his incomparable way of elevating pain to a thing of beauty:

The same night whitening the same the same trees.
We, we who were, are the no longer the same.

 Reading these poems after years today, both the emotions love and loss appear equally distant - I have been single a while.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Name Generator

Found this fun blog post that generates your name as it might have been if your mom was Sarah Palin - its hard to forget her in my neck of the woods with the yards signs and bumper stickers yet to be put away. Mine turned out to be Knife Pile (ouch !) and J's was the slightly more nuanced Stick Freedom.

There are plenty of name generators out there - the other one I tried gave me my pirate name which is Captain Grace Cash. While the Palin name generator does not explain why I might be Knife Pile, here is what the pirate namer had to say per my responses to the questions leading up to the name :

Even though there's no legal rank on a pirate ship, everyone recognizes you're the one in charge. You're musical, and you've got a certain style if not flair. You'll do just fine. Arr!

If you are stumped with trying to come up with a pet name for your significant other with a little moxie help is at hand.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Rice Farming and Math

I can't wait to read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers even though I was underwhelmed by The Tipping Point. Despite all the hype around it, I was not convinced enough by his line of reasoning to be "tipped over". I am particularly intrigued by his explanation of why Asian kids are usually better at math than American ones :

"Rice farming lays out a cultural pattern that works beautifully when it comes to math," Gladwell hypothesizes. "Rice farming is the most labor-intensive form of agriculture known to man. It is also the most cognitively demanding form of agriculture … There is a direct correlation between effort and reward. You get exactly out of your rice paddy what you put into it."

I find this very presumptuous to say the least. Gladwell has made a broad brush (and mostly incorrect if I may add) assumption about Asians who have historically been a very class and caste conscious people. To posit that the rice-farming gene (or tradition) gives Asian kids a leg up in math is quite an eyeopener for an Asian such as myself who is fairly decent at math.

The average rice farmer's child in India was barely literate in the past and is still only scraping the bottom of the barrel as far as getting an education.
A majority of the kids who have traditionally enjoyed the benefits of good education in Asia, have likely never been around a rice farm in their entire lives and neither have their ancestors. For better or worse, they have zero experience of this cognitively demanding line of work and thus cannot benefit from it.

These are the kids from the so-called "upper castes" or "upper classes" who have survived by their wits generation after generation; they have grown up knowing they have no other capital besides that to make a living with. While times have changed in the last fifty years (at least in India) and rice farmers have a better chance of getting an education than they ever did before - they are still quite a ways away from making waves in AP Calculus class in San Francisco.

I would argue that Asian parents are culturally conditioned to value education very highly as being educated has always been correlated with being upper-caste or upper-class in their culture. To that end, they push their kids to work as hard as it takes to excel in school because it confers upward social mobility and respectability to the entire family. As much as Gladwell would like to believe it, rice farming has precious little to do with any of this.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Love 2.0

Reading this article in which experts hold forth on online dating reminded me of something a friend had said a while ago - that I should write a post on how to spot a fake in thirty minutes or less. It is commonly known that on the Internet no one needs to know you are a dog. With apologies to the canine species who are by far superior on all counts compared with the scumbags you run into online, it is important to be able to recognize the many "dogs" of the online dating world. Here is a small sampling of things to beware of :

1. Email Address : Would not use a real first and last name, the handle itself would be vague and not have any real life associations that you can trace back to. Often the address is fairly new - its hard to find a fake using an email address he has had since the 90s.

2. Voice Mail Greeting : Regular people often announce their name in the own voice (at least) and will also have a greeting recorded. A fake will use a cell-phone and/or a VoIP phone as their only contact number. They will use the pre-recorded greeting that comes out of the box and record a blank instead of their name in the greeting. Most often the phone number will not be announced. You will feel weird leaving a message and wonder if you even had the right number.

3. Lack of e-correspondence : They will like to minimize e-mail trail and try to get on the phone as quickly as possible. You will be hard-pressed to get them to send you a photograph. They may or may not ask to see one of yours. They will reason it is much more effective to meet in person because it is almost impossible to sense chemistry via a picture

4. Invented Identity : If you want to meet only people of your own religion, a determined fake from another one will lie about his faith. An easy way to test this one is to lead him into some very uncomfortable discussion about religion or better still be obnoxious and flaunt your own faith to the point, it becomes difficult for him to not defend what he believes in. Chances are, he will steer conversation in a different direction. All other aspects of a fake's identity will be invented as well - education, career, family, marital status, children - what have you. They follow a playbook and will do their best to stick to the script. Drilling down to the next level of detail on any aspect is the easiest way to rat them out simply because there is no detail.

5. Language : Usually effusive and charming (if they have been at it for any length of time). They will try to bypass the initial ice-breaking phase and plunge right into the heart of the matter with lines like "Do you think you will like me ?" , "Do I sound like the kind of man you might find interesting to get to know ?", "I can't wait to meet you. In all the time I have been dating, I've never talked to someone like you. When do you have some time to meet ?" and so on. It all about not venturing into territory that requires specific, quantitative responses and trying to tug at your heartstrings by way of "You are so wonderful to talk to, I could be on the phone with you all day", "You should never settle for a man who does not appreciate how special and unique you are ". On a bad day, a lot of women will drop their guard when such lines are delivered with panache and it is exactly on such days that fakes pull off their scams.

6. Speed : Sort of related to the previous section. Fakes want to hit the ground running. There is no time to be wasted getting to know someone new. They act like they have this amazing psychic connection with you, which makes the run of the mill process of relationship building quite unnecessary. They "get" you completely and you will discover that yourself as soon as you drop your defences and let them into your heart. As for your body - they are not seeking that at all - easy women are dime a dozen and they could be hooking up with anyone they fancied. You on the other hand are exclusive and special - it is your love and respect they seek. They will do their utmost to get you emotionally entangled quickly - everything else becomes easy at that point.

7. Too good to be true : If a guy tells you stuff about himself and/or his family that is simply too good to be true be very afraid. If he talks to you like he has known you for ever and gets you to talk with him like you would with your closest friends even before you have met in person, be very afraid. If he is not able to give you his full legal name, home address and phone number or send you a mail from his work mail address you can be almost 100% certain you are dealing with a fake. The real guys have no trouble providing you as much information about them as you reasonably need to feel comfortable.

So let's say you know exactly how to tell a fake and think you are talking to one. It's one thing to think and quite another to know for sure. Your fake is going to try his hardest to convince you that you are paranoid and steeped in negativity to the point that you are unable to see the inherent goodness in human beings.

He will have some cockamamie story about how he had been a victim of identity theft in the past and prefers to err on the side of caution when giving out personal information. After all, when the two of you are together, he will be handing his life over to you to guide and run - remember you are his life's true north. If not that, the other frequently used story involved a neurotic ex (girlfriend, fiancee, wife etc) who is obsessed about him and will do everything in her power to stop him from moving on.

He is a man on the run, trying to hide from this raging female lunatic who is hounding him relentlessly - he just cannot afford to leave traces of himself online or offline if he wants to escape her wrath. You just have to live with the ambiguities and trust that he is the man you have been waiting for - all will be cleared up in the end when you two are married. Needless to say, all stories are told very convincingly. You have to maintain strong resolve and assume guilt until proven innocent. Despite what your fake tells you, this is a basic survival mechanism and not some deep-seated cynicism that will take mental health intervention to correct.

When you allow yourself to get carried away by the tall tales of your professional fake, be prepared to be jolted out of your little paradise with no warning - a call from his wife one weekend asking to know why your phone number appears hundreds of times on his cellphone bill, the man himself dropping off the face of the earth never to reappear are among the myriad of possibilities.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Cooking For Soul

If there was a World's Slowest Eater contest, J would just not have any credible competition. Yet, she is very interested in the art and craft of cooking. Her miniature appetite notwithstanding, she appreciates well-prepared food and can tell it apart from a slipshod effort - a meal put together in a rush. In general, anything cooked a la Grandma is great - the more faithful the reproduction the better. 

Outside of that, she will occasionally love something we eat out but bringing home the leftovers (which is the majority of J's serving) for the next meal is usually not a good idea. J will have lost interest in it by then and will ask for a "regular" home cooked meal.  Recently, she helped me discover Show Me The Curry - one among many Indian food websites and blogs. It is an over-crowded space with lot of talented people jostling for room and airtime in it. 

Thanks to J's fascination with food, I've spend time looking around these web-sites marveling at the passion of those who create content for it - they can make the humble kichdi and raita look like a work of art. Then there are the variations on traditional recipes, the South Asian take on Western ones and such. As I have wandered around from one blog to the next, I have wondered about the never ending stream of recipes, cookbooks and cooking shows alongside the mindboggling number of options for those who want to eat out. 

I think it may have something to do with the crumbling of the traditional kitchen in our homes. If the mother is not able to introduce her children early on, to the signature taste of her own cooking - a taste that has been around for generations in her family, chances are the kids will grow up rudderless ; constantly seeking the satisfaction of food that nourishes the soul. In their ceaseless efforts to find it, they will try everything. To that end, they will trawl the web, cookbooks, TV shows and restaurants for inspiration and not quite find that special taste that is worth returning to every single meal. 

I used to be an innovative and experimental cook before becoming J's mom. Thanks to her, I am reaching back to my roots, trying to learn the minutiae of my mother's cooking so I can reproduce that taste exactly. As it turns out, it not as easy as I thought it would be.

Monday, November 17, 2008


While reading random chapters from The Hyperlinked Society (via digital culture books) that talk about the nature and purpose of a hyperlink, I decided to try something I used to do a lot of when the Internet was utterly new to me. I would start at some random place like a news article and follow a hyperlink trail to wherever it took me. It was fascinating how quickly I would be completely de-linked from my source and have no way to trace my steps back - this was the web equivalent of being lost in the woods and it was always a surprising and most often gratifying journey. I loved how I would never quite know where hyperlinking would lead me or what I would learn along the way.

I tried this again today, starting with a story on Yahoo about the world's oldest temple which took me directly to Smithsonian's site. I realized that the web is organized so different today than it was ten years ago. For instance, there is no way for me to click my way out of this website - I can read stories related to the oldest temple one. The farthest I could go was the educational travel sub-site. As the web has evolved, you have fewer degrees of freedom. Instead of being able to wander away at whim you now had a well defined navigation that aims to keep you where you are and make the most of your visit.

Now this would be most standards qualify as good web-design. One the visitor comes in, they stick around and get a chance to absorb what the organization has to offer. Yet for a one-time indefatigable hyperlink jumper like myself, this user experience is akin to a fly who gets trapped in a spider-web - enjoyable just does not come to mind in the context. Not surprisingly, I find blogs, social bookmark sites and the like far more interesting. Without outbound links, web content is equal to a static book except it you can't curl up and go to sleep with it.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Crowdsourcing And Schools

Reading Jeff Howe's book Crowdsourcing recently prompted me to find out how this could be used in the field of education. My friend P, is a stay at home PTA mom and often talks about the long hours the more serious and committed PTA parents have to spend at school and how the public school system is able to do what it can for the children in the community only because of the huge volunteer involvement. In other words, it always takes a village to raise a child. As a full time at work mom, I deeply appreciate what folks like P do for J and me.

Clearly, using the web as a medium for communicating and conferencing has not become popular with the school system in my town. Coincidentally, I also happen to know the woman (K) who's company is one of the contractors the the school system has appointed to fix their technology infrastructure. I met K while looking for work a couple of years ago and we have become friends since. The book, a recent meeting with P and a voice mail message from K coalesced into the idea of this post.

Last year, I had chatted with a couple of teachers in J's school to explore the possibility of using fifth graders to redo the school's website so it can become a way for parents, teachers and students to interact with each other online. I was reacting primarily out of my need to stop receieving the endless stream of paper from the school. I frequently threw stuff in trash because I did not have the patience to read through every last thing that came home with J. Every once in a while that would turn out to be something important.

I was being crushed under paper and innudated with more information than I had capacity to consume. They liked the idea but I found out quite quickly that it took a whole lot more time than I have to spare to translate idea to reality. It does not help that I am not a PTA mom and have no clout with the school's management. There is potential for crowdsourcing the idea though - there are many parents who can just as easily provide direction and assistance in making an interactive web site for the school. What I will never be able to pull off alone, we could easily do as a collective.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Books, Desis and Dating

Though I am ashamed to admit it now, I did read Ayn Rand, Richard Bach and Robert Pirsig in my teens and was quite a bit of a fan as well. This is one of those teenage afflictions that many of us have suffered and with any luck recovered by the time we became adults. 

Was reading this fun discussion on personal ad red flags and could not help chuckling at Ayn Rand devotion being among them because I do feel highly repelled by adults who say that they are. Likewise a grown man who writes in his personal ad, that he is a P.G Wodehouse fanatic and reads Calvin and Hobbes for wisdom and inspiration has always proved to be really bad news in my experience.

I enjoy reading Wodehouse as much as the next person but would never feel compelled to include this fact in my bio. The desi male who calls out his devotion to Calvin and Hobbes has told you a whole lot about himself and as a woman, you would be well advised to heed this message. He is telling you that he is highly intelligent, given to pondering the social, political and philosophical questions of the day and that he has a phenomenal sense of humor. 

The comic strip happens to be the prop he uses to present himself to the world. When you consider that in the light of the desi male's frequently exaggerated sense of self helped along by fawning mothers, aunts and hero-worshipping sisters, the popularity of Calvin and Hobbes with a desi male of a certain stripe becomes that much easier to understand.

A desi woman who ignores this particularly dangerous red flag in a desi man's personal ad does so at her own risk. The Wodehouse deal is similar only a little less alarming. The man is not trying to signal an off the charts IQ or sense of humor which is definitely some consolation. He is however trying to impress upon you his good taste, wit and breeding. That you will most likely be disappointed on all those counts and more, is a different matter. It is not for nothing that you would be hard pressed to find a desi dude whose favorite books include Portnoy's Complaint, Adrian Mole or god forbid The Confederacy of Dunces. Now that is a self-deprecating sense of humor a girl could live with and even learn to adore.

Friday, November 14, 2008


Funny story about the rise and fall of a trophy wife. The "new" trophy wife is apparently one who is high-powered and high-income like her husband - it is the harsh economic real ties of the day that make it so. One political commentator calls a former presidential candidate a trophy wife and quotes another who compares him a Rorschach test. 

Steven Levitt has written about the economics of gold-digging (as it is probably practised by the wannabe standard-issue trophy wife) and it makes for very interesting reading. For anyone who cares about etymology - NYT has an article on the origins of the phrase trophy wife. Not surprisingly, the phrase trophy husband has an entirely positive connotation :

Fortune reported that more than one-third of the magazine’s “50 Most Powerful Women in Business” in 2002 had stay-at-home spouses. The magazine called them “trophy husbands,” not for their looks or charm but because they deserve trophies for trading roles to help their wives’ careers flourish.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Desi Social

Having a few ABCDs in my family and close friend circle, I try to stay away from the all-desi social scene in the US , the ecosystem that helps perpetrate the dread bane of ABCDness in the first place. I am committed to doing what little I can to allow J a chance to learn and care about India without feeling the need to give up whatever it means to be born and raised in the West. Reading this article on what goes on at the average desi party, was quite an eye-opener.

Several desi parents I know in America, have raised their kids in a recreated world that replicates their Indian experience from the time they last lived there - doing much disservice to the children in the process. By providing the kids an artificial comfort zone created by several other families just like theirs in a foreign culture and country, they make it extremely difficult for them assimilate with the mainstream - to a large extent they don't even find this necessary to do.

Between their trips to the temple, language classes, festival and social celebrations all year long, they get all their social needs more than adequately met by their legions of desi friends. Having no reason to reach out to kids from other cultures, they naturally gravitate towards the desi kids in school and college as well. Many desi parents find this situation very comforting and actually encourage it. The desi parties are a natural byproduct of this upbringing and a manifestation of everything that is wrong about it.

A few token non-desis invitees notwithstanding, this is where desi kids can act out the "other" culture that they have followed curiously as outsiders but never as full participants. It is here where they would not feel stupid about mimicking what they vaguely know and understand - the tendency to go overboard is only to be expected. In many ways, the more negative stereotypes about Western culture that their parents held given their unfamiliarity with it, get passed down to the children who are not any more familiar with it despite having significantly greater opportunities to gain acquaintance.

While their vantage point may be a lot better than that of their parents, it does not qualify as real assimilation. As Reena Patel points out in her article, the ABCD culture is not quite living up to the potential it holds - instead of becoming a vigorous hybrid of two starkly different cultures, it is degenerating into the worst elements of both.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Trading Waste

It's hard not to read an article titled so suggestively - Crap and Trade. The author is inspired by the Indian experiment to provide monetary incentive to encourage the use of public toilets by paying the poor instead of relieving themselves in public. He argues for Americans to be likewise paid for using public toilets even if not for the same reasons as the Indians are being paid. He says :

I bet somebody will figure out pretty soon how to monetize toilet waste. And it won't be the government; it'll be the private sector.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Obscure Reads

I approach reading as someone with a small budget and a huge appetite might approach their options while picking a place to go to lunch. They would be most likely to select an all you can eat buffet hoping to stuff themselves to the gills before they head out of the establishment. Yet more often than not, a lot of the food they plan on eating remains untasted - there is only so much even the hungriest person can eat even after allowing for a huge appetite. 

Similarly, I go on a binge when borrowing books from a library - everything that is of interest comes home with me. I start reading all the books in parallel, leave most of them midway because I am too full from reading in the short amount of time I have available. It's not any different in a bookstore - I will try to go through as many as possible in the time that I am there. I always want to consume more than I have capacity for.

With that reading lists are very important to me - I used to make my own before the Internet days. Long lists, scribbled on the last page of notebooks but never referred to when it may have been useful to do so. There would always be ten other things that I'd find even more interesting to browse through - my list could wait until later. Now, I don't bother with making my own lists - there are so many vastly superior ones out there. I love reading lists compiled by others - ideally those that do not include the usual "Top 100" suspects - like this one from NPR of the best foreign books that you have not heard of.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Net Geners

I don't run into a lot of fresh out of college kids in my line of work, less computer science majors from reputed universities. Mediocrity is all around me as are mid career people from diverse educational backgrounds that hopped on the IT bandwagon in the 90s. They've stuck around, figured out their jobs well enough to remain afloat after many layoffs and re-organizations. Very few of them have any radically new or different ideas to bring to the table - rarely if ever do they question the merits of decisions that they are handed down to work with; often against impossible to beat odds.

Recently, that has changed. I am working with three kids with a total of ten years of work experience between them. However, that does not bother or hinder them in the least. What they lack in experience or raw talent they more than make up with their attitude. This article by Dan Topscott in the Guardian is a great summary of the traits these young people display but tends to be a little too one-dimensional. Per Topscott, the net-geners have it exactly right and the rest of us just have to get with the program or go the way of the dinosaurs.

I love that they work smarter and question the wisdom of doing stuff the "old" way. Social media is the air they breathe as is the idea of using the web in collaborative mode. Hanging out with them can be refreshing and provide many learning opportunities for folks like myself who have been around for a bit.

What I find missing though is a desire to learn the system they find themselves in - old, backward and out-moded as it were. Unless they understand the beast and what makes it tick (or not) chances of them being successful in taming it are slim to none. Their approach tends to one of supercilious incredulity at how dumb the non net-geners are. While they are quick to point out the as-is processes are dumb they are not able to suggest a better way either. They want to move up the corporate ladder as fast as possible and if they meet impediments along the way, they will quit to find another gig - it is like the word slow has been expunged from their lexicon.

Recently one of our senior managers asked me for "candid" feedback on one of these youngsters and I had to say about 4 on a scale of 1 to 10 in innate ability and over 20 in attitude. I am sure there are net-geners out there who score far higher in ability and as a result don't need to over-compensate with attitude - they would be the leaders of tomorrow.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Dawn And Opportunity

I love reading the work of young authors in Stone Soup. There is a certain freshness and clarity in the thought that does not last past childhood which makes the writing in this magazine such an unique pleasure. When I read this line by 13 year old Bonnie Leigh Cruser I had to wonder if that was not one of the best explanations I have come across of why dawn fills the heart with energy and gladness :

My timing is perfect—the sun is just tipping the horizon, lighting up the whole silent sky with amber sparks. My favorite time of day. New, and clean, and cool, and quiet. Evening is clean and cool, too, but opportunity is lacking. Everything is set in stone. But in the morning, everything is pliable and optimistic. Anything can happen.

In twenty years or more, someone with talent like Bonnie's might write just as beautifully of the unyielding romanticism and optimism of youth being like dawn where everything is pliable and optimistic. Anything can happen. Once youth is past and the "future" is not quite as unending or distant as it had once been, there might be serenity but opportunity is lacking

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Candy Tree

Until reading this fun article on candy classification I thought it was only one of two things - candy you liked and candy you hated. I find myself disagreeing with the classification almost entirely because of how Tootsie Rolls have been placed - below the lowest most level would be more appropriate as far as I am concerned. Then again, I don't care for anything listed in the top tiers either - except maybe for M&Ms. It would be interesting to rate and rank candy by popular vote. One blogger has come up with a nice rating system.

If you don't care for generic candy and stick to chocolate bars alone this long and exhaustive rating chart might be instructive. Candy must be good for stress relief how else can one explain the disappearance of left-over Halloween stuff people bring to work within an hour of their being laid out in the community bowl. On a bad day, even the worst candy-snobs will settle for offerings from the lowest branches of the "tree".

Along with candy-eaters, there are I think candy-hoarders - I have one in the household. J is not exceptionally crazy about candy but is prone to hoarding every last piece of it that comes her way. The only way to get her to share them is by replenishing what you took so her stash does not grow smaller. I guess she derives greater pleasure from being the proud owner of x pieces of candy than from eating any of it.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Small Town

I've tried living in big cities both in India and America but have to admit despite all protestations to the contrary, I am at heart a small town person. As much as I crave for a more diverse and richer life experience, despite everything I long for and cannot have it is my natural element.

Each year Diwali would be exactly like it was the previous year in the the town that I grew up in. The usual suspects would have celebrations in their homes, the same set of people would invite and be invited, same or similar local talent would perform at the concerts and so on. If you gone through it once, you knew exactly what to expect. I would be bored to tears having to go through the 'Diwali drill' when it was that time of year and yet it was an intensely personal experience.

In my town, it took a while to earn the local tag - a few years just did not cut it. You had to be a lifer. But when you crossed a certain threshold of time and did become local, it was home forever. I have felt lost in big cities everywhere. There is more to do, more variety than I can keep up with ; each festival or holiday is a little different each year. You take a lot longer to get bored but it takes even longer to begin to belong. Your friends are as numerous as they are transient - so you make and lose acquaintances with equal rapidity.

The town I live in now has little by way of artistic and cultural diversity but the few tokens that do exist show up everywhere with little variation to their standard gig. So when you see the one drummer from Djibouti that the town boasts of, you also know his tried and tested routine. And so it is with the solitary storyteller from Sumatra or the one Bharat Natyam dancer folks know about. As boring as it can get to be, there is something oddly comforting about the predictable pattern that small town life is all about. It takes more effort than I am able to muster these days to yank myself out of this comfort zone to head somewhere where things are not always the same.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Desi Fashion

This blog is an interesting read for desi women who are concerned about not committing fashion crimes and also for those who can't help commenting on such crimes when they see them committed. For easy reference, the blogger has identified the frequently occurring flubs of the desi sisterhood right on page one. When she does unleash her inner-bitch she does not hold back, words are not minced and I would say so much the better for the reader looking to glean some desi fashion wisdom minus the sugar-coating. Tell it like it is, sister.

While style and fashion advice is dime a dozen in desi publications targeted towards women, I have almost never seen anything that actually tells the average desi sister what dress and make-up faux pas she must avoid under all circumstances. Now, there are some columns that routinely
trash fashion-challenged Bollywood celebrities but all that bad-mouthing does not have lessons for the rest of us regular folk. It's nice to see someone has filled the gap even if she lacks the gentle touch or bedside manners. I guess you might call it tough-love.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

One-Trick Pony

Having been forced to reinvent myself several times to remain viable in tight job markets, I would recommend this article on branding yourself as a one-trick pony to anyone who is starting out in their career. A former manager once shared his career strategy with me. He would specialize in one area for a few years and then spread out to acquire skills that complemented that specialization. When he had been a generalist for a few years, he would turn to a new area to hone in on. 

The plan had played out well for him and is one that I have used with some modification to adapt to a rapidly evolving job market. I started out as a one-trick pony too and I am glad that I did - that is the skill I think of as my rainy day fund. If all else fails, I could always go back to the basics - and it took being a one-trick pony for quite a while to even have learned those "basics" well enough to be able to fall back on. Yet, even the most exceptional one-trick pony finds it hard to survive in the mid to late career job market - it is exactly as the author points out :

the very thing you work hard to be known for ultimately pigeonholes you to a particular job or career path instead of opening more doors down the road. 

You have to work extra hard to not keep getting repeat assignments that require you to use the one skill that you reputation is built around. Sometimes, it is worth taking a pay or position cut just to be able to try something new and create new options of oneself.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Sum Of Parts

Ten Thousand Cents is a fine example of the productivity of crowd sourced projects that does not require participants to be aware of what everyone else is doing or what the overall objective of the project is. Using a custom drawing tool, thousands of individuals working in isolation from one another painted a tiny part of the bill without knowledge of the overall task.

While that premise makes for interesting artwork, you wonder why the same principles when transferred to a real workplace makes for dysfunctional, chaotic organization. All too frequently, ten different teams end up working on the same problem approaching it like so many blind men might an elephant.

There is no communication inside or across team. Each one solves for what it takes the elephant to mean. They work in isolation and without knowledge of the overall task. In the end, an assortment of unrelated stuff gets created instead of a whole elephant - or in this case a reasonable replica of a hundred dollar bill.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Social Media Overload

This critique of the social web gave me plenty to ponder over but if one was looking for a succinct description of why social media is an insufficient remedy for all that ails society, Trebor Scholz has it exactly right:

Social platforms become a partial remedy, a fix for these societal ills. It would not be hard to find cases of social isolation but overall the obese teenager or the alienated adult is not a product of the Social Web but of the described problems of society at large.

The other noteworthy point he makes is the need for successful social media to be a popular watering hole for those who participate - which is why the friends, contacts, followers and the like. Scholz says :

User’s friends are concentrated in only a few places, which is a key motivating factor for people to congregate there. Content, therefore, is also concentrated, which makes these sites more attractive. This captivity is not accidental but is rather central to startup business strategies.

While the sites may become attractive destinations, the individuals who frequent them seeking social connections are still likely to feel isolated and lonely, not sure which is favored destination of the moment - i.e should they be on Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn or something more niche like Shelfari, Gather or Vox.

With that, it becomes almost impossible to not have s
ocial network aggregators to come to the rescue. The only problem with these rescue packages is that while they will gather up the activity from all your different networks to one place, you are still on own your own as far a being able to tune out the noise and focus on what you really need or like.

Sunday, November 02, 2008


As someone who has always been afraid of crowds and seen plenty of them, I found this WSJ article with quotes from Elias Canetti's book Crowds and Power fascinating. The author Fouad Ajami sees to be suggesting that America is headed the way of Third World countries, when he says ;

Hitherto, crowds have not been a prominent feature of American politics. We associate them with the temper of Third World societies. We think of places like Argentina and Egypt and Iran, of multitudes brought together by their zeal for a Peron or a Nasser or a Khomeini. In these kinds of societies, the crowd comes forth to affirm its faith in a redeemer: a man who would set the world right.

The crowds I have seen in India have not always come together to "affirm its faith in a redeemer" though the sight of many thousand devotees milling around the sanctum sanctora of temples braving huge odds and many hardships to catch a glimpse of their deity is one I am familiar with. Political rallies on the other hand are largely manufactured crowds with poor people being bussed over to the rally grounds in lieu of food and or clothing - the purpose of these crowds is limited to creating an illusion that the leader addressing the multitudes is a highly popular one when such may not be the case. The energy levels of these crowds tend to be low and it is easy to tell even on television.

Then there are crowds that gather to protest something - they tend to be energetic and vociferous but their numbers are not that high. Finally, there is the crowd of the public places - the pervasive, always present throngs that are rushing to wherever you are, always a step ahead of you. You find them in train and bus stations, market places, sidewalks, parks - almost everywhere except in the confines of your home. You long to escape them to be alone for a bit.

No matter what the context around any of these large gatherings, crowds are anything but elagitarian or uplifting to those who are in it. If you are a woman you are afraid of being molested, if you are child you are terrified of being seperated from your parents. All you can think of is getting ahead and then getting out of it. I figure Elias Canetti must have had some other kind of crowd in ind than what I have seen and known when he says :

"The crowd is based on an illusion of equality: Its quest is for that moment when distinctions are thrown off and all become equal. It is for the sake of this blessed moment, when no one is greater or better than another, that people become a crowd."

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Halloween Candy

My neighborhood is rife with the signs of Halloween retail excess - plastic cobwebs, ghosts, ghouls and jack-o-lanterns. J was not able to decide who she wanted to be or "represent" until the end and did not end up going trick or treating. After a very long week at work, I could not be more relieved - for once J's inability to pick out the clothes she wants to wear on time worked entirely to my advantage. Every time a holiday comes along, I think about how commercialization has killed the intrinsic meaning and joy associated with them. Halloween is becoming more and more "plasticky" with every passing year or so it seems to me.

Close to J's bedtime, on my way back from throwing out the trash, that I ran into a neighbor who was walking her dog. She stopped me and said "I have been waiting for kids to come trick or treating all evening but no one came to my house. I don't have children of my own. Please take some candy for yours" She handed me a handful of candy bars. It was an overwhelmingly sad moment as I imagined this older woman ready with treats in anticipation of kids who never come come for them to her door, kids who have other places to go and other things to do - fun Halloween parties perhaps.

I also thought about my own child who stayed indoors because she could not settle on a costume to wear - stumped by the bewildering range of options. And here I was making a connection between two people who if they had met would have made each others day happier. As I walked indoors, I thought about the remnants of the human touch in a plasticized holiday - about how I was bearing it in my own hands. It was a good feeling.